Caribbean Canadian music with a cause remembered at Friar’s Music Museum
By Stephen Weir
Standing inside the Friars Museum beside the two curators of the new free exhibition – Rhythm and Resistance – I listen as they tell the history of the Caribbean music scene in downtown Toronto. I am being schooled about what made Toronto the North American hub for Calypso, Ska, Rock Steady, Reggae, and now Hip-Hop music.
The Friar’s is the only museum in Canada (or even the world) that is housed inside a drugstore. The store has a micro-museum on its second floor and is located at the epicentre of what was once Toronto’s Music City – Dundas and Yonge Streets.
The store is located where the Friar’s Tavern and later the Hard Rock Café stood south of Dundas Square; it was a Jazz and Blues club until it closed in 1976. Two years later the Hard Rock Café took over the building and it truly did what the name suggested – it rocked loud and hard until 2017 when the structure was rebuilt into a new Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacy.
Back in the day, the music centre was a strip of bars that lined Yonge Street from College down to Queen Street. This is where the Caribbean sound got its Canadian start!
“In the 70s, 80’s and 90’s with clubs like the Hard Rock Café and the Colonial Tavern, the area could accommodate 26,000 people (on any Friday night),” explained Mark Garner, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Director of the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area. “When the Hard Rock went dark, the area lost its vibe. What we are doing here is keeping the dream alive.”
Garner worked with businesses along Yonge Street with Galen Weston (owner of Shoppers Drug Mart) to house a tribute to the music scene in the new store. The museum’s latest show has photographs, music video and ephemera, including rare 1967 Caribana posters and concert tickets. There is a moving time wall that spotlights the stars of each era. Nearby is a life-sized cut-out of the late Jackie Mittoo.
“Some say that Ska/Reggae legend Jackie Mittoo started the Reggae sound right here in Toronto, before it got started in Jamaica,” said Jamaican-Canadian musicologist, author, and curator Klive Walker. “Listen to his piano and it has that sound and the beat (that became the soul of Jamaica).”
The late Donat Roy Mittoo (Jackie Mittoo) was born in Jamaica in 1948 and reportedly learned how to play the piano at the age of 3. He played in bands in Jamaica including The Skatalites until the 60s when as a teenager, he left for Canada. Soon he was a force within the Toronto Caribbean scene, notably with The Satellites.
Mittoo also owned one of the city’s first Caribbean music shop, the Record Nook. Although the Bathurst store is long gone its neon sign has been rescued and restored.
“It was by luck that we got it,” laughs music journalist, author and curator Nicholas Jennings, “I passed an antique store and spotted the sign. I stopped and called Mark and said ‘We gotta have it now before it disappears’. Mark said tell the owner we will buy it at any price.”
Success. It now it hangs in the Museum lighting the exhibition space.
“Caribbean music has over 70-years of history in Toronto, beginning in 1940’s as people began to immigrate here,” explained Klive Walker. “Not only has the music flourished but it has attracted musician like Leroy Sibbles and David Rudder to come up and (become part of the scene).” Some, like featured Soca singer Elsworth James, ended up staying.
“By the time Caribana arrives we will have a full-sized Carnival costume, installed in front of the exhibition,” said Garner.
Rhythms and Resistance is open 7-days a week during drugstore hours.